L’Affaire James Frey

A few people have asked me what I think about the current literary scandals, particularly the memoir-oriented James Frey case. Actually, a few of those who asked did so admitting they could already guess my take on it. They know I’ve never had much patience for what I consider nontruth in nonfiction. And by the way, I still consider memoir a sub-genre of nonfiction, with all nonfiction’s attendant characteristics, rewards, and responsibilities.

Maybe that explains, in part, why I really haven’t wanted to take on l’Affaire Frey myself. And maybe today’s Publishers Lunch summarizes even more clearly why I haven’t focused on the subject here: “It would be an understatement to say there is an abundance of stories on James Frey, his Larry King appearance last night, and Oprah’s dramatic last-minute blessing of the ’emotional truth’ of however it is that he told his tale. We presume that if you’re interested, there’s little new we can tell you, just as our subjective assumption is that you’ve probably already formed a firm opinion on the matter.”

Yes. Which isn’t to say that I won’t comment later, once I’ve had more time to think about all this. Maybe I’ll decide I have something original/potentially new and interesting and enlightening to contribute. I’m also looking forward to Mary Karr’s editorial on the subject, which, according to today’s PW Daily, is in the works.

But for the moment, I’m confident that you’re following the news yourself. In the unlikely event that you aren’t, here are just a few recommended readings:

A transcript of last night’s Larry King Live Interview with James Frey;

An editorial published in the Los Angeles Times;

And though it’s dated (from 2003), this article, “Memoirs: The Novel Approach to Facts”, published in The Age, is also highly relevant.

ADDED JANUARY 15, 2006:

Here are two articles/commentaries from today’s New York Times with which wholly agree. You’ll need to register to read the full pieces; registration is free.

1) Randy Kennedy’s “My True Story, More or Less, and Maybe Not at All,” which appears on the cover page of the “Week in Review” section.

2) Mary Karr’s op-ed, “His So-Called Life”.

Lessons Learned from the Nieman Narrative Nonfiction Conference (III)

OK. Here are my final thoughts (for the moment) about something I gleaned from the conference. (I know I promised a conference summary in the next newsletter, but I’d rather devote the space to the words and wisdom of a fantastic interviewee. Watch the newsletter for the interview!)

This last lesson actually returns to an issue highlighted in a previous post, which quoted Lee Gutkind’s reminder that “There are two types of stories. One type is one’s own story. The other type is telling the stories of others.”

As I’ve said before, I’ve encountered many creative nonfiction writers who seem to believe that the genre is synonymous with–and limited to–memoir. Looking outward is far from the point–interpreting one’s own experience is.

So it was interesting to find at this conference–attended by so many practicing newspaper and magazine journalists–that some people focus too much on the opposite and really have to learn how to bring their own narrative, first-person voice into a work of nonfiction. They know how to “report” on other people, but they may need to slow down and craft other characters: themselves.

Still, here’s the overall message: there’s room for everyone at the narrative table.

A Basic Definition of Creative Nonfiction

Another nugget from the MediaBistro Toolbox, this time a basic explanation of creative nonfiction courtesy of Lee Gutkind.

My favorite part of his statement is this:

“And there are two types of stories. One type is one’s own story. The other type is telling the stories of others.”

Got that? Sometimes it seems to me that some writers believe “creative nonfiction” is synonymous with (and limited to) “memoir.” It isn’t! Back in the day some of us learned about “creative nonfiction” as “literary journalism.” Sure, there are plenty of wonderful memoirs/first-person essays out there, and I certainly enjoy reading them. But please, let’s not forget that there’s more to creative nonfiction than memoir.

Look to hear more about nonfiction (specifically, “narrative nonfiction”) from me in a few days. I’m volunteering at the 2005 Nieman Narrative Conference in Boston. I spent four hours last night preparing folders, and there’s another folder-preparation session in store for me before I get to the actual event on Friday. But it’s all going to be worth it–what a line-up they’ve got….

Attention, New York Writers!

The Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts offers both summer fellowships (one-month residencies at the Saltonstall Arts Colony open to all New York State artists and writers over 21 years of age–categories include poetry; fiction and creative nonfiction; photography; and painting, sculpture, and other visual arts) and individual artist grants ($5,000 grants open to writers and visual artists living in specified New York State central and western counties). For 2006, individual artist grant categories include works on paper; photography; poetry; and creative nonfiction. The application deadline for both programs is January 15, 2006. For more information, including detailed eligibility guidelines and the required forms, visit the website.

A Change in the (Submission) Seasons

NEWN (formerly New England Writers’ Network) publishes on a quarterly basis and describes itself as “devoted to helping writers around the world to get published and to teaching through content and example.” And its submission period has very recently changed. Regular submissions will now be welcome from January 1 through March 31. This is a low-paying market for fiction, essays, and poetry (but a paying market nonetheless). Read more about it and check the guidelines here.